Tiger Moms: Is Tough Parenting Really the Answer?

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother author Amy Chua's proudly politically incorrect account of raising her children "the Chinese way" has revealed American fears about losing ground to China and preparing our kids to survive in the global economy

  • Photo-Illustration by Jim Naughten for TIME

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    One more way in which the tiger mother's approach differs from that of her Western counterparts: her willingness to drill, baby, drill. When Sophia came in second on a multiplication speed test at school, Chua made her do 20 practice tests every night for a week, clocking her with a stopwatch. "Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America," she writes. In this, Chua is right, says Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. "It's virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extensive practice," he notes.

    What's more, Willingham says, "if you repeat the same task again and again, it will eventually become automatic. Your brain will literally change so that you can complete the task without thinking about it." Once this happens, the brain has made mental space for higher-order operations: for interpreting literary works, say, and not simply decoding their words; for exploring the emotional content of a piece of music, and not just playing the notes. Brain scans of experimental subjects who are asked to execute a sequence of movements, for example, show that as the sequence is repeated, the parts of the brain associated with motor skills become less active, allowing brain activity to shift to the areas associated with higher-level thinking and reflection.

    Cognitive neuroscience, in other words, confirms the wisdom of what the tiger mother knew all along. "What Chinese parents understand," says Chua, "is that nothing is fun until you're good at it." That may be an overstatement — but if being good at reading or math or music permits a greater degree of engagement and expressiveness, that would seem to be a very desirable thing.

    All that said, however, psychologists universally decry the use of threats and name calling — verbal weapons frequently deployed by Chua — as harmful to children's individual development and to the parent-child relationship. So just what does she have to say about the notorious episodes recounted in her book?

    About "The Little White Donkey": she was perhaps too severe in enforcing long hours of practice, Chua says now. Still, she says, it was important for Sophia and Lulu to learn what they were capable of. "It might sound harsh, but kids really shouldn't be able to take the easy way out," she explains. "If a child has the experience, even once, of successfully doing something she didn't think she could do, that lesson will stick with her for the rest of her life." Recently, Chua says, Lulu told her that during a math test at school that day she had looked at a question and drawn a blank. "Lulu said, 'Then I heard your annoying voice in my head, saying, "Keep thinking! I know you can do this" — and the answer just came to me!' "

    On calling Sophia "garbage": "There are some things I did that I regret and wish I could change, and that's one of them," Chua says. But, she notes, her father used similar language with her, "and I knew it was because he thought well of me and was sure I could do better." Chua's parents are now in their 70s, and she says she feels nothing but love and respect for them: "We're a very tight family, all three generations of us, and I think that's because I was shown a firm hand and my kids were shown a firm hand."

    And Lulu's birthday card? Chua stands by that one. "My girls know the difference between working hard on something and dashing something off," she says firmly. "They know that I treasure the drawings and poems they put effort into."

    More than anything, it's Chua's maternal confidence — her striking lack of ambivalence about her choices as a parent — that has inspired both ire and awe among the many who have read her words. Since her book's publication, she says, e-mail messages have poured in from around the globe, some of them angry and even threatening but many of them wistful or grateful. "A lot of people have written to say that they wished their parents had pushed them when they were younger, that they think they could have done more with their lives," Chua recounts. "Other people have said that after reading my book they finally understand their parents and why they did what they did. One man wrote that he sent his mother flowers and a note of thanks, and she called him up, weeping."

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